The Lianhe Zaobao newspaper recently published an illustrated feature on Bukit Brown. As the article is in Chinese, I’ve translated it into English so that it can reach more people. The Zaobao editor was Lu Lingzhi.
Paths of History — Bukit Brown
Listening to the stories of the graves
To make way for a new road, over five thousand graves from Bukit Brown have to be removed. The remaining 95% will sooner or later have to make way for housing developments, and will find it hard to escape the fate of being unearthed. This news, announced in September 2011, drew widespread attention, and many people were afraid that the history preserved in Bukit Brown would disappear amid the plans for future development.
As a result, more than ten heritage enthusiasts began to explore the cemetery, collecting historical documents and recording information. Based on the information they collected, they planned out four historical trails, and even volunteered to lead guided tours, doing what the could to help the public recognize the history of Bukit Brown. Among them was Raymond Goh (50 years old), who was the first guide to bring a group to explore the mysteries of Bukit Brown, having begun giving tours there in 2006. Raymond Goh is a pharmacist. Every weekend, he goes to Bukit Brown to help people find tombs, and also explore history. Lin Minghui on the other hand is a ceramics expert, specializing in uncovering historical information from the ceramics used in tombstones. Lim Chee Kiong is one of the three Chinese-language guides at Bukit Brown; what interests him is the history carried by these tombstones.
This interview focuses on the historical trail at Bukit Brown Hill 2, where trees are dense and wild grass grows thickly, yet hidden within this cemetery are abundant and precious historical materials, that bear upon culture, handcrafts, folk customs, beliefs, literature, genealogy, and much more besides.
Like an open air museum
Lim Chee Kiong says: “The cultural history here is richer than one can imagine, and can even correct the historical record.” Bukit Brown Hill 2 alone is like an open-air museum that one can never finish viewing!
After Singapore was founded, immigrants from various places came flocking there, and soon the place was transformed into the meeting point of Southeast Asia, and where the cultures of East and West met.
Bukit Brown is a Chinese cemetery, but one can find here two Dutch, three Thai, and two Japanese graves. To the right of the entrance to one of the Dutch graves is a small asphalt path. With a stroke of chalk, dusted off with a dry leaf, Lim Chee Kiong shows how the text on the tombstone can be dimly seen. Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch before its independence. Judging from the surname, the occupant was probably a Chinese who moved here from Indonesia.
Near the entrance to Hill 2 is a tomb whose construction is different from the rest. The tombstone is made from marble, and from a distance it looks like a Western mansion rising from the greenery. The text, in cast lead attached to the stone, is in English, and full of Western flavour.
Traditional Chinese tombs are often flanked on the left and right by a Chinese-style golden boy and jade girl, but in that tomb, the golden boy and jade girl are a pair of Western-style angels, dressed in Chinese-style ribbons, the girl bare-breasted, the boy with a Chinese-style necktie. To the two sides of the grave are also a characteristic local sight: Sikh doormen, carved in relief, as well as scenes from the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms carved as ornamentation. This is a jigsaw puzzle of Chinese, Western, and local culture, as varied and colorful as a plate of cold meats.
Diverse sources of grave sculptures
Bukit Brown has many old graves with intricate carvings. After two years of collecting material on historical tombstones, Lim Chee Kiong has yet to find any carvings that are identical in their details. Some carvings even make use of the fretwork technique, as fine as threads, are the product of the craftman’s solitary labour. The themes of the carvings are varied, including classical literature and stories that everyone appreciates; those that have been found include the story of the Empty Fort Strategy, Legend of the White Snake, The Western Wing, Nezha Stirs the Sea, Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars, The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, and so on. Aside from carvings, volunteer guides have also discovered a tomb that has been beautified using Jingdezhen porcelain.
The Art Nouveau movement began in the 1880s, and reached its peak between 1890 and 1910. At the time, colored ceramic tiles fired between 800 and 1100 degrees Celsius were popular in Europe. These tiles were entirely made by hand. Metallic compounds were used on the surface, making them durable and vividly colored. From 1920 to 1935, Japan also produced ceramic tiles imitating those from Europe, but their color and luster were a grade lower.
Lin Minghui says that colored ceramic tiles from Europe and Japan have both been found in Bukit Brown. He has even found two European colored ceramic tiles, embedded in a tombstone in Hill 2, that are from the same source as the tiles on the Hongwen School. He says, “these are unfortunately the only remaining examples of this series of ceramic tiles.”
According to Chinese folk beliefs, everything has divine protection, including graves. Traditional Chinese graves all make offerings to the deities who protect graves. From the earliest — Hou Tu, a Taoist female deity — to the later-arriving male deity Toa Pek Kong or Hock Teck Cheng, or later still the Hill Spirit worshipped by the Hokkiens, the Dragon Deity worshipped by the Hakkas, the Earth Deity worshipped by Teochews, and so on, as well as Toa Pek Kong who was eventually depicted in pictures or ceramic mosaics. Lim Chee Kiong says that examples of the evolution of these folk beliefs can all be found in Bukit Brown.
Written characters demonstrate cultural differences
The graves at Bukit Brown also demonstrate the cultural differences between Hokkiens and Teochews. The Teochew gravestones there characteristically prefer to indicate the status of the departed with the paternal or maternal ancestors. Women and men alike both retained their original ancestral hometown or birthplace, but do not list the names of their descendants. Hokkien graves typically list the names of descendants, but only state the ancestral place of the men. These are important pieces of information to scholars of cultural practices.
The written characters on gravestones also change with the times. During the Qing era, persons of high rank in the family or clan would have surmounting their gravestone the words “Huang Qing” or “Huang”. Aside from meaning “sovereign”, “Huang” also means “majestic”. After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the birth of the Chinese Republic, the word “Da” was used instead. “Da” no longer has the meaning of “sovereign”, but is still a term of respect to one’s seniors. This sort of change illustrates the changing political situation, and is a marker of identity. When the Manchus were in power, people saw themselves as subjects of the Qing Empire. After the Manchus were overthrown, they distanced themselves from the Qing.
Identity is also reflected in other details of the tombs and can be read between the lines. The grave of the late Chen Wenxue has two instances of the Five Colored Flag (also known as the Five Races Union Flag), which was the flag used in the initial years of the Republic of China under the Nanjing Provisional Government and the Beiyang Government. Contained in the character “Guo” (for “country”) carved on the tombstone is the character “Min” (meaning “people”), vividly portraying the idea of democracy. The political views of the occupant, or the person who erected the tombstone, are self-evident.
Who was Chen Wenxue? The History of the Development of Nee Soon District says that he was an uncle of the pioneer Tan Kah Kee, or that he was an older paternal cousin of Tan Kah Kee. Which is correct? Lim Chee Kiong says that a letter on hand from the Tan family could solve this mystery. Unfortunately this letter is written in romanized Hokkien, whose meaning is difficult to decipher, so the answer could be some time in coming.
Moving deeds of Chinese pioneers
Bukit Brown covers 86 hectares and has over one hundred thousand graves, and is the final resting place of many Chinese pioneers. Hill 2 alone has several of them. Their graves may not be striking to the eye, but buried within are many moving stories, some of which are also part of the shared memories of the peoples of China and Southeast Asia.
Bukit Brown and the surrounding area are known to contain 18 graves of Tongmenghui members, among which is the grave of Huang Xiaoyan. Huang Xiaoyan, whose ancestral home was Quemoy, was a member of the Tongmenghui, traveling about to spread the Revolution. He was also one of the founders of the Nanyang Girls’ School and the Chinese Industrial and Commercial Continuation School. After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, when Quemoy fell to enemy occupation, he even wrote to the Singapore Quemoy Association, exhorting them to raise funds for the victims.
Chio Yeok Chiang, whose ancestral place was Hokkien Tong’an, was a founding member of the Tongmenghui in 1906. When he passed away, the announcement that was published in the newspapers by the Tongmenghui had as the heading “honour-bound to duty”, showing the degree of respect he was accorded by the members. Furthermore, the words “The Kuomintang Old Alliance pioneers had foresight, as representatives of the Chinese Overseas were ahead of their times.” This is one of the rare graves still existing here that mention the Kuomintang.
The first owner of the Wanqingyuan, Boey Chuan Poh, is also buried in Bukit Brown Hill 2. Wanqingyuan was built by him in 1902.
Bukit Brown is indeed a precious place, and can help us uncover many obscure historical facts.
See Tiong Wah, buried in Hill 2, was a great-grandson of Hokkien pioneer Si Hoo Keh. The Bukit Brown Cemetery opened in 1922 was energetically planned by the then-director of the Hokkien Huay Kuan See Tiong Wah and another Chinese community leader Tan Kheam Hock. In addition, See Tiong Wah took on leadership duties in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and the Straits Settlements Government had appointed him as a Justice of the Peace. He himself was the Compradore of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. His tombstone reportedly has a small lion modeled exactly on the mascot of the Bank.
Lee Kim Soo was one of the founders of the Teo Yeonh Huai Kuan, and was a leader of the Tuan Mong School, Teo Yeonh Huai Kuan, and Ngee Ann Kongsi. He was also a board member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, and the Chui Huay Lim Club. He was a merchant. Aside from producing a device to mix cement, he had metalworking and oil businesses, and established factories to produce matches in Johor and Klang. His gravestone is very distinctive, resembling a matchbox standing upright.
Bukit Brown must also contain the bones of dead poets; some graves are marked with the word “Poet”. Two of these have been found so far, one of these is Kang Yanqiu, buried in Hill 2. He was a secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The other is the Teochew poet Feng Jiaoyi. When Yu Dafu was the supplement Editor of the Sin Chew Jit Poh, he helped Yu Dafu with the editorial work.